CHICAGO - "We're here to ask your support in our strike against the Congress Hotel. Our families have been suffering for seven long years," Amelia told a sympathetic receptionist at the Italian Trade Commission here.
The receptionist nodded and responded that no, they weren't using any hotel rooms at the Congress. She promised to do what she could to relay our concerns to the head of the commission.
I joined Amelia, five other Congress strikers and Roberto, an organizer from Unite Here Local 1, as they made the rounds. They spend nearly every day traveling around Chicago making their case, hoping to dissuade everyone from using the hotel. They end their day with another picket line at the Congress.
About 140 workers struck the Congress Hotel on June 10, 2003, after the owners imposed a lower wage rate than the master agreement negotiated with hotels across the city.
As the strike's seventh anniversary approaches, it's become a growing disgrace for the city. The occasion will be marked by another big demonstration around the hotel.
While walking to our next appointment the other day, the strikers told me about what they were going through. I couldn't help but admire their courage and perseverance. They are heroes of the labor movement but, like most workers, unassuming. Despite tremendous hardship, they remain upbeat and determined to win.
Last year, the strikers made over 500 visits and got $700,000 worth of hotel business cancelled.
On this particular day we were speaking to several trade associations participating in the upcoming PACK International Expo 2010 at McCormick Place. The expo will draw 45,000 participants to view the packaging and processing industry's newest innovations. They book a lot of hotel rooms, including, usually, at the Congress.
It's estimated that trade shows and conventions provide half of all the hotel business in the city. In addition, the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau route a lot of people to hotels including the Congress.
The strikers say the tourism bureau is thinly disguising the hotel industry's support for the Congress management. The industry average wage is $14.20 per hour while the Congress pays $8.83 per hour. Keeping business flowing to the Congress sets up a lower wage and benefit standard for the rest of the industry.
The hospitality industry here says times are bad and is demanding concessions. In reality the big hotels are making profits, just not big enough for them. They're shedding employees and making those remaining work harder.
Nasario is one of the strikers. As he put it, "I was seven years in the Congress and now I'm seven years on strike - seven in and seven out." Nasario gets by with part-time work, cleaning one of the large office buildings downtown. Life has been very difficult.
Roberto told me about an incident on the picket line where a pedestrian spit on one of the strikers. He shook his head at how heartless some people can be. But most people are very supportive, he said.
At another trade association we visited, two management personnel greeted us. They took our information and said they don't use the Congress but would pass along the message. As they walked away, I overheard one tell the other, "I can't believe it's been seven years."
Afterwards, we sat and had coffee. Amelia, who now works part-time at McDonald's, proudly told me her son is following in her activist footsteps. He's a leader of the Immigrant Youth Justice League, a group of undocumented youth who have "come out of the shadows."
Amelia,, like the others refuses to give up. And she's passing the mantle of the quest for justice to her children. With fighters like this, there's no way they and we can lose.
Photo: Congress Hotel strikers (PW/John Bachtell)